I'm not a psychologist. And I'm pretty glad about that. But I have in my short life noticed something very odd about a lot of intelligent people - they don't seem to understand certain concepts that appear very straightforward to me, while they may find certain other concepts easy that to me are pretty hard. It has been known for a long time that "intelligence" is a multidimensional thing. There is no one measure that can tell you how "intelligent" you are, and the "IQ" is a notoriously unreliable number to attach to it (and certainly to rank people's generic ability to perform real-life tasks). What is it really measuring? Who knows?
That said, there do appear to be at least two axes that seem somewhat meaningful in assessing people's aptitude for certain fields of endeavour, and these are what I call the "visual thinking" axis and the "verbal thinking" axis. I don't know whether they are mutually exclusive; maybe some people think excellently along both axes, and others are daft no matter which way you tilt the graph.
Visual thinkers conceive of topics by, well, visualising them. In their mind's eye they construct the concept and explore it as if they were handling it and peering into its nooks and crannies. They like diagrams; they get a lot out of practical demonstrations of procedures. They think of things as systems, rather than as discrete objects. They're good at breaking things apart and putting them back together.
Verbal thinkers are quite different. To the verbal thinker, the instructions are key. Protocols and standard operating procedures. I sometimes think verbal thinkers are more prone to accepting an authority-based view of things. Concepts are related in a rigid ontology, which can be useful for some fields of endeavour, but verbal thinkers are not great at thinking outside the box. They can be quite good at logic when terms are clearly defined, but are prone to missing obvious fallacies when terminology shifts or where words have two meanings.
And for these reasons, I think scientists tend to be more visual than verbal in their thought processes. They need to see something; understand how it breaks down and rebuilds. Verbal thinkers perhaps make better lawyers or administrators. Of course I am tarring with a broad brush (a tortured metaphor that will send our verbal-thinking pals into a headspin) - these are not exclusive, and most people probably adjust their thinking style to fit the problem they're dealing with. I am a teensy bit concerned by the tendency of some philosophy fans to major on the verbal to the virtual exclusion of the visual, and I think this traps them into unproductive loops that they have a hard time escaping from, or prevents them seeing obvious fallacies in wordy arguments.
One example of a seriously fallacious argument that traps verbal thinkers, but is obviously bogus to visual thinkers, is St Anselm's "Ontological Argument" for the existence of God. I'll come back to this in another post at some point, but google it if you're interested, and see if you can spot the howler - that little test in itself will probably tell you what sort of thinker you are!
I was thinking of all this as I watched an episode of Marcus du Sautoy's excellent BBC show "The Beauty of Diagrams". It seems to underline the point - scientists and mathematicians seem to see the world in a different way to our verbal thinking friends. To the visual thinker, a rose by any other name smells as sweet, but to the verbal thinker, if you change the name of something, you change its nature. The human brain is a very strange thing.
Is there a moral to this story? I don't think so, but speaking personally I have noticed that I get on much better with visual thinkers. If I was a verbal thinker I would probably say the opposite, and be just as emphatic in my conclusion. And here I am writing words to get that point across. Irony is not the 51st State of the USA.